Can catastrophes lead to good policy?Jeffrey Stern explores this question by explaining "rational choice theory," according to which people try to do things rationally so as to maximize good outcomes
By The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies Staff
By Catherine Hartwell
Over the past hundred years, new policies have surfaced after every major catastrophe, with the goal of addressing deficiencies in mitigation, preparation, response or recovery and by so doing, decreasing the chances of harm.
John Jay College and the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) invited Jeffrey Stern, author of “Can Catastrophes Lead to Good Policy” in the Handbook of Critical Incident Analysis, to share his insights and experience from his current role leading the Center for Response and Security Lessons Learned at the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute, Arlington, Va. (HSSAI is a federally funded research and development center operated on behalf of DHS.)
Can catastrophes lead to good policy?
Stern explored this question by explaining “rational choice theory,” according to which people try to do things rationally so as to maximize good outcomes. By following this paradigm, good policies should result.
However, many stakeholders are involved with policymaking after a typical disaster. Stern used the 9/11 attacks as an example, enumerating its stakeholders, including Wall Street businesses, local residents, families of those killed, city and state leaders, Port Authority officials, local business owners, and the site owner as competing for different interests. All these principals had to come together and decide how to rebuild community and who would pay for what.
It’s very hard to make policy in the aftermath of a catastrophe because the fractured and often contentious nature of the federal, state and local governments and agencies typically impede the design of effective policies Massive, comprehensive change does not often happen all at once, though leaders can shape critical decisions.
When a catastrophe occurs, however, there is a short, but useful, period called a “policy window.” This is the rare alignment of the public demand for effective action and the political will to change.
Stern provided an example by noting that after 9/11 the FBI changed its focus from traditional criminal activity to terrorism. In addition, a major federal restructuring created the Department of Homeland Security and included FEMA within it.
Critical to the scope of the policies made in response to a disaster is the stakeholder’s perception of the faults with the response. Was it one person’s or one system’s fault? It is these story lines that drive policy-making.
Four key movements
Over the past hundred years, Stern said, four key movements have shaped the disaster policy domain.
1) Growth of government in the United States: A hundred years ago, suburbs did not have well-established social services, community hospitals or even, in some cases, fire departments. Currently, however, the country has one federal government, 50 state governments and 87,000 local governments, all capable of making policy changes.
The federal government became involved in disaster response in the 1960s, and FEMA was formed in 1979. Before that, disaster relief had been handled by local businesses as part of the rebuilding process after a disaster.
2) The increase in technology and industrialization: Cities all over the country began to rise, often with transit systems. Industrialization created toxic chemicals and required fuel sources. These, in turn, became potential sources of additional harm to humans and the environment.
Before this industrialization, calamities had been mostly from natural causes or “acts of God.” Industrialization created technical disasters that were caused by man, leading to blame, which led to the third societal change.
3) The increase in human-caused disasters: These led to a rise in regulation and litigation. When a disaster is an act of man, people want someone to blame and they want compensation for damages. Regulations and standards attempted to limit recurrent accidents.
4) Public and social media: The current 24-hour news cycle drives people’s reactions and creates high political stakes for leaders. Everyone with a smartphone is a potential reporter, and people are streaming live videos of events during disasters. During Hurricane Katrina, the incident commander was overwhelmed by minor facts sent by tweets and blogs.
Case study: The BP oil spill
Commander Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard provided a strong and credible command presence during the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil spill. The Coast Guard responded under the National Contingency Plan, which requires a different response and authorities compared to FEMA’s response under the Stafford Act.
After Katrina, the Gulf Coast states were more prepared to respond to a disaster, but despite this, when the BP oil spill occurred, the Coast Guard and state and local officials did not know how to integrate their efforts, because the Stafford Act was not designed to work under National Contingency Plan.
Non-government, private-sector and public-sector communities all shape the story and outcome of policy. Catastrophes can engender four types of policies:
1. Policies to fix the damage caused by the disaster.
2. Policies to prevent a similar event from happening again by investigating and establishing a new policy. For example, the BP oil spill would lead to stricter regulation of offshore drilling.
3. Policies that add government regulations to a policy area of disaster because they might be at fault.
4. Policies to reorganize government institutions that were responsible for responding and preventing the event that occurred.
One lesson learned from catastrophes is that there are no unintended consequences to unforeseeable changes. The most important thing is to identify where the problems are <i>before</i> a solution is made. Future events will be shaped by threats such as WMD, cybersecurity threats, climate change and new technologies.
Jeff Stern gave the example of how the League of Nations was established in 1919 to prevent future world wars, but was ineffective, resulting in World War II. There was no intent to weaken FEMA when that agency was added to DHS, yet FEMA’s effectiveness was impaired in that reorganization, an unintended consequence.
We are currently facing new calamities, such as Fukushima and Katrina, where technological and natural disasters combine. There are benefits to be gained from policy-making after disasters, such as better building codes and engineering designs that have improved safety codes in high-rises.
An impediment to further safety advancement is the difficulty in working with our multiple levels of government and within policy windows that are so narrow that if everyone is not similarly aligned and willing to cooperate, there’s only a slim chance for a major change.
Catherine Hartwell is a graduate research assistant with The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) and is pursuing her master’s degree in emergency management at John Jay College.